A two-month offensive by Pakistani forces has driven militants from a stronghold through which Taliban and al-Qaida fighters had poured into Afghanistan to attack U.S. troops, the army said Saturday.
But the operation claimed the lives of at least 95 civilians — whose deaths are a critical issue here that observers warn can only increase sympathy for the militants.
The military said its forces captured Loi Sam in the Bajur tribal region Friday after a long and bloody struggle. The town sits on a vital intersection linking the border to three neighboring Pakistan regions.
“Now we have complete control in this area from where miscreants used to go to Afghanistan, Mohmand, Dir and Swat,” army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told reporters. “Miscreants have been expelled or killed.”
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Bajur is part of Pakistan's tribal belt that has become the stronghold of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters waging an intensifying insurgency on both sides of the border.
U.S. officials worried about record fatalities among their forces in Afghanistan have said the operation was helping reduce violence on the Afghan side. But the Americans have not halted missile strikes on suspected militants hide-outs in other parts of Pakistan's wild border region, despite Islamabad's protests that the attacks violate its sovereignty.
In a sign the U.S. is scaling back its goals in Afghanistan, Pentagon officials are weighing proposals to send additional teams of special operations forces to narrowly target the most violent insurgent bands in the country.
The proposals are part of an acknowledgment among senior brass that a large-scale influx of conventional forces is unlikely in the near future because of troop commitments in Iraq.